MLS is Back Tournament off to solid if shaky start

Orlando City won the opening match of the MLS is Back Tournament over Inter Miami on a stoppage-time goal by Nani. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 26 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

So after all the handwringing, all the justified uncertainty and concern over MLS’s plan to restart its entire league in a bubble in what is currently the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the league’s first match in nearly four months went about as well as anyone could’ve hoped.

The first of the two games originally scheduled for Wednesday night on the grounds of the Walt Disney World complex in Central Florida, between local side Orlando City and the David Beckham-co-owned expansion side Inter Miami, was played. The nightcap, between Miami’s fellow newbie Nashville SC and the Chicago Fire, was cancelled after nine Nashville players tested positive for COVID-19. (Like FC Dallas before them, Nashville was booted from the competition on Thursday after arriving in Florida with a rash of infections.)

The “home” team, scored a late winning goal, with Orlando City headliner Nani, the former Manchester United forward, breaking a deadlock in stoppage time:

Still, it was weird. There were no fans in attendance, of course, none of the organic atmosphere that is normally one of MLS’s main selling points and something that sets its gameday experience apart form other USA-based pro sports circuits.

And unlike the games we’ve seen since the German Bundesliga and English Premier League and even in the National Women’s Soccer League — which became the first American league to return when it kicked off its own tournament in Utah last month — the game was played not in an actual soccer stadium, but on a tricked-out practice field some 20 miles outside of Orlando proper. There was no piped-in crowd noise on ESPN’s broadcast, as there had been in the games beamed over from Europe and in the NWSL. There was also a garish sponsor logo splashed across the field. (More on that in a bit.)

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For the most part, though, it worked. The game was exciting. The players were sharper than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. We’ll see how the rest of the tournament goes. The event was already down a team before it even kicked off, and on its second day, it’s now down two.

With Nashville officially out, the 24 remaining teams are left to compete for a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League plus a cool $1 million-plus in prize money. There’s a ton of time between now and the Aug. 11 finale, to be sure. Plenty more can go wrong. But the NSWL also lost a team before the Challenge Cup, and that tourney has been great. So so far, so good, for now.

26 Thoughts

1. The most memorable moment from the (re)opener wasn’t Nani’s winner. It was the moving protest organized and beautifully executed by MLS’s Black Players for Change, a coalition of more than 70 Black athletes from across the league that was formed last month in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota police custody in May.

More than 100 other players joined in Wednesday’s demonstration. All 22 Orlando and Miami starters plus the match officials took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained worldwide momentum since Floyd’s death and others like it.

Orlando City, Inter Miami and members of the Black Players for Change coalition staged a powerful protest before MLS kicked off again Wednesday night. (Photo courtesy of the MLS via Getty Images)

Justin Morrow, the veteran Toronto FC defender and executive director of the coalition, promised in a halftime interview that the group would continue to fight to make sure players of color are being treated equally, and that they have the same opportunities as their white teammates to move into coaching or executive roles within the league when their playing careers end.

“They’ve been seeing and doing all the right things,” Morrow said of MLS HQ, adding that the group has had “a direct line” to commissioner Don Garber. For a league that shares several owners with the buttoned-up, highly conservative NFL, the scene and the league’s support of it was remarkable. Now we wait to see what concrete actions follow.

2. Once Wednesday’s match actually kicked off, the main talking point among those watching at home was the outsized Adidas logo superimposed in the center circle. The consensus? Not a good look for a league that for most the last quarter century has been desperately trying to live up to the “Major League” part of its name.

Besides the optics, the move clearly flouted FIFA’s rules. As USA Today’s Andrew Joseph pointed out, world soccer’s governing body expressly prohibits the practice. “No form of commercial advertising, whether real or virtual, is permitted on the field on play.”

3. Speaking of Adidas, the German sportswear giant is producing special Black Lives Matter cleats for MLS players. Nani wore a pair Wednesday night.

4. During the match, I texted MLS’s chief spokesman to see if FIFA had perhaps granted an exception to the league, which is understandably trying to recoup as much money as possible in the absence of paying supporters. I had not received a definitive answer as of this writing (you probably know the answer anyway), but the logo was also present for the league’s second game back, Thursday morning’s affair between Eastern Conference powers Philadelphia Union and New York City FC, which was won 1-0 by Philly on Alejandro Bedoya’s second-half goal.

5. Just like Wednesday’s contest, that match also featured a major non-soccer talking point, as Union players replaced their own surnames on the back of their jerseys with those of Black people killed by police in recent years:

6. A day before the restart, I caught up with Union coach Jim Curtin. “I’m fortunate that I have great leaders on my team who are brave enough to speak up, like Ray Gaddis, like Ale Bedoya,” he said of the team’s response to Floyd’s death. “We held a Zoom call and we talked about what people don’t want to talk about. We even said going in, this is going to be uncomfortable for some guys.

“We have 12 different countries represented on our roster,” added Curtin, who wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt during Thursday’s tilt. “We have guys on our roster as young as 16-years-old that don’t understand the systemic racism that’s going on in this country for 400 years.

“So we let a lot of our African American players speak about their experiences, and some of them are pretty alarming. Whether it was growing up and being labeled as just a fast and athletic guy or being treated poorly by different coaches, even at the professional level. It was time for the privileged white guys to just kind of shut their mouths and listen and learn and grow from it. It was really eye-opening. I think it was a good first step for our group, but it’s just the start.”

7. The last time Curtin and I spoke was shortly after his team’s pulsating 3-3 draw with LAFC on March 8, the last MLS game before the league shut down (and for my money, the best early-season match in MLS history). COVID-19 didn’t even come up until the end of the call. That edition of 26 Thoughts never posted. We obviously live in a vastly different world 123 days later.

8. “There’s nothing you can point to in your coaching courses, there’s no blueprint, there’s no book you can read that’s going to prepare you for what we’re all going through right now both in the game of soccer and off the field,” Curtin said.

9. One thing that helped keep his players engaged during those difficult first couple of months of the pandemic? Watching the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance. “So many things from that documentary hit home with the team: the dynamic of a front office-type who doesn’t necessarily have everyone’s best interest [at heart]; the salaries of players; the superstars sticking up for everybody else. That was probably the most valuable thing we did because I got them really talking and they were into it the whole entire 10 episodes.”

10. The Union players put in the work on their own, too. Curtain said that when they were allowed to return to training, their fitness levels were actually higher than before the shutdown. “You talk about culture and environment all the time, and that’s when it’s truly tested, when guys are literally on their own for almost 60 days and they actually come back in better shape. So I was proud of that as a coach.”

11. The culture Curtin has created in his six seasons as Union coach is part of the reason Philly is being touted as a dark horse to win the event over bigger-spending rivals like Atlanta United, the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders and 2019 runner-up Toronto FC, as well as the the two LA powerhouses.

12. “It speaks to how far our club has come,” said Curtin, who spent nine years a central defender in MLS, mostly with the Fire. “When you start to see the respect other GMs and coaches give us and how other players talk about us, they all really like watching our team play. There’s no better compliment than that. But it also makes you realize that we’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore.”

13. The Union have had just one player test positive for the coronavirus: Kacper Przybylko, who was infected during that early-season trip to Southern California. Before letting Curtin go, I had to ask: How safe do his players feel in the so-called bubble? “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t in the back of their minds some concern as we’re sitting in Orlando right now,” he said. “But at the same time, they want to get back to doing what they love.”

Jim Curtin and the Philadelphia Union could be a dark horse to win the MLS is Back Tournament. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

14. I’ve now had a couple of folks around the league dismiss @MLSCovidCup as “an anonymous Twitter” account.” But the handle, apparently created by player or players (or staffers) inside the bubble who aren’t thrilled by the league’s plans to return this month, has become a must-follow for good reason. The “MLS is Back Insider” was the first to report Nashville’s nine positive tests on Wednesday morning, about 12 hours before the news was confirmed by The Athletic’s Sam Steskjal.

15. This had to be said: The reporting around MLS over the last few months by Sam, his Athletic colleague Paul Tenorio, and that of my old running buddy Jeff Carlisle of ESPN, has been off-the-charts amazing. For most of its existence, MLS could only dream about that sort of in-depth, granular coverage from major media outlets that more established leagues enjoy. Now that it’s here, I hope they realize how valuable that is, and how long it took to get here, even if sometimes what’s revealed isn’t flattering.

16. Thursday Union-NYCFC game was the earliest ever in MLS. The teams woke at 5 a.m. and ate breakfast at 6, three hours before the opening whistle. There are other anomalies, too, like all the teams staying in the same hotel. “It feels like a youth tournament,” Sporting Kansas City coach/GM Peter Vermes told me on Tuesday.

17. The changes present challenges. “We’re having to abide by [MLS’s] rules whereas when we go on the road normally, we set our own rules for our team. I understand why everything is being dictated by the league, but it’s just different.”

18. Our interview was extremely different. Vermes and I connected via Zoom and before the questions started, he asked an MLS staffer for permission to remove his SKC-branded mask, only to be told he couldn’t. A league source told me yesterday that all interviews not done in players’ own rooms would require mask-wearing “out of an abundance of caution.”

19. For Vermes, only one place feels familiar. “It gets back to normal once you’re on the field,” he said. “I’m sure it’s going to feel very close to that once we start playing games. It’s unfortunate there won’t be fans, but I just think that once we’re on the field it feels a lot more like we’re getting back to ourselves.”

20. MLS and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry had a win and a draw in the first two games of his maiden season as manger of the Montreal Impact when play stopped. In Thursday’s nightcap, he’ll face the New England Revolution, which Montreal beat in its regular season opener on Feb. 29. Because of local restrictions in the Canadian province of Quebec, the Impact were one of the last MLS teams to return to full training.

21. “It’s already difficult for me to think about how to prepare the team physically and mentally because of the circumstances,” Henry said in a conference call with reporters. “Usually when you go into a tournament, you play friendly games to make sure that your team can be ready.”

22. Montreal actually has played more games than most MLS teams in 2020 thanks to their participation in the CCL. That feels like a lifetime ago now. “For me, it’s kind of everything is new again,” Henry said.

23. Garber traveled to Orlando for the opener. The commish and his league have faced a lot of criticism, most of it fair, for going ahead with the tournament as cases and deaths in Florida continue to rise. But the 62-year-old cancer survivor still deserves credit for showing up in the bubble alongside the coaches, players and staffers who are also assuming a certain level of risk by playing in the middle of a once-a-century pandemic.

24. With Dallas and Nashville out, and the remaining teams continuing to test clean, the hope within MLS circles is that the bubble is now fortified and that there will be no more failed tests. That’s not the only consideration, though.

25. There was a scary moment in the second half of the opener, when Orlando striker Dom Dwyer caught Miami defender Andres Reyes with a flagrant elbow. (Dwyer was not even cautioned on the play.) Reyes had to be stretched off the field. And he was taken to a local hospital — many of which have been overrun with coronavirus cases in recent days.

26. Reyes has since been released. He’ll remain isolated pending COVID-19 test results. He got lucky. So did the league. For their own health and that of the greater Central Florida population, MLS players don’t need to be taking up hospital beds in the area right now.

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